I Wore A $554,000 F-35 Helmet And It Blew My Mind

Let me get this out of the way: the trillion dollar US F-35 fighter jet program is an embarrassing mess. But it’s hard not to marvel at the very expensive technology’s promises. This conflict squeezed my brain this week, when the Air Force stopped by Gizmodo’s US office with a $US400,000 ($554,212) F-35 helmet in hand. They even let me wear it.

All images: Adam Clark Estes

The helmet is undeniably beautiful, a glistening orb of woven carbon fibre with a computer hidden underneath. It belongs to Major Will Andreotta, a seasoned fighter pilot based out of Luke Air Force Base and the F-35A Heritage Flight Commander. The Major was in the area to fly his F-35A at the Atlantic City Air Show this weekend. The US Air Force recently announced that the initial squadron of F-35s will be combat ready by the end of this year. So despite the endless reports of bugs and hold ups, the very expensive fighter jets do fly. And the very expensive helmet sure looks cool.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience the F-35 helmet’s full set of futuristic features. These include microphones for voice commands, a night vision system and an advanced heads-up display (HUD) that not only displays flight information but also enables the pilot to see real-time in every direction, thanks to six infrared camera mounted on the jet. Here’s a sample of the imagery, courtesy of the Air Force:

With the HUD, the pilot can actually look down at the floor of the jet and see the ground. As Maj Andreotta explained, the $US400,000 ($554,212) price tag accounts not only for the helmet itself but also the computer system that it connects to in the aircraft. And the helmet is considered an integral part of the F-35 weapons system. So without plugging it into the aircraft, the helmet is basically a really nice helmet.

Those two things on the bottom that look like WALL-E eyes are projectors for the HUD. Above is the night vision system.

Those two things on the bottom that look like WALL-E eyes are projectors for the HUD. Above is the night vision system.

The F-35 helmet is also insanely light, weighing in at 2kg or several grams heavier than a football helmet. (Although, like the rest of the F-35 program, even the weight of the helmet has been subject to controversy lately.) Each helmet is custom-fitted to the pilot using a complex set of 3D scanners to increase comfort and safety. And even though it wasn’t built for me, Maj Andreotta’s helmet felt pretty damn good when I put it on.

The snakeskin-looking band houses the cables that connect the helmet's processor and sensors to the aircraft.

The snakeskin-looking band houses the cables that connect the helmet’s processor and sensors to the aircraft.

Then again, it was my childhood dream to be a fighter pilot. My grandfather, father and brother all served in the US Air Force. I have bad eyes and a bum ear, so I got into blogging instead. As it were, I’ve been covering the troubled F-35 program for years. It’s frustrating to watch the Pentagon throw a trillion taxpayer dollars at a weapon that doesn’t work right! But to sit down with a pilot who flies an F-35 and see the $US400,000 ($554,212) helmet I’d read about was a weird thrill.

The fact that I couldn’t actually see the helmet in all of its HUD-laden glory seemed like an appropriate metaphor for the state of the F-35 program as a whole. The technology sounds — and probably eventually will be — amazing. The 21st century sensors that spot threats a pilot would have otherwise missed might save lives. And apparently, the F-35 is almost there.

In the meantime, average civilians can watch these impressive jets at airshows. Journalists like me can marvel at its pricey components and wonder when they will start to make a difference in combat. And you should just feast your eyes on this F-35 helmet. The carbon fibre really is stunning.